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Tag Archives | Before 1 CE

TED: Computing a Rosetta Stone for the Indus script

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Brain Surgery in Bronze Age

Trepanation is a surgical technique in which a hole is drilled into the human skull to treat intracranial diseases. It was quite popular during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Count Philip of Nassau had 27 successive trepanations done in the 17th century. In England, it was a common form of treatment among miners who suffered cranial trauma.

Trepanation has a much older history; it was done during the Bronze Age in Peru and Jericho as well. During those times, it was done to repair skull fracture resulting blows, to remove splinters and blood clots. It was also done on dead people, to obtain skull bones to create necklaces.

At Ikiztepe, a small settlement near the Black Sea occupied from 3200 to 1700 B.C., archaeologist Önder Bilgi of Istanbul University has uncovered five skulls with clean, rectangular incisions that are evidence for trepanation, or basic cranial surgery. The procedure may have been performed to treat hemorrhages, brain cancer, head trauma, or mental illness. Last August Bilgi also unearthed a pair of razor-sharp volcanic glass blades that he believes were used to make the careful cuts.

There is ample evidence that Bronze Age sawbones knew what they doing. Last summer, biological anthropologist Handan üstündag of Anadolu University in Turkey excavated the 4,000-year-old trepanned skull of a man at Kultepe Höyük in central Turkey. üstündag says the surgeon cut a neat 1- by 2-inch incision, and  there are clear signs of recovery in the regrowth of bone tissue at the edges. Judging from the frequency of healed bone in such skulls, anthropologist Yilmaz Erdal of Hacettepe University in Turkey recently proposed that about half of all Bronze Age trepanation patients- and 60 percent of those in Turkey- survived the procedure.[Bronze Age Brain Surgeons]

Trepanation was practiced in Harappa (Lothal, Kalibangan) and the megalithic site of Maski too.

Trepanation is known from the Bronze Age Harappan (ca. 4300 BP) people of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Sarkar (1972) attributed a squarish hole on the right temporal skull of a child of 9-10 years skull found at Lothal, a Harappan site. Roy Chowdhury (1973) also believed that evidence of trepanation was present in Harappan skull No. H 796/B and H 802/B, from Cemetery R37 and possibly in a Kalibangan skull (another Harappan site) in Western India. A megalithic skull (M30) from Maski (Karnataka) in South India also showed evidence of trepanation (Sarkar, 1972): it has two circular holes of 22 mm and 15 mm respectively on the either side of the sagittal suture of the vertex.[Evidence of Surgery in Ancient India:Trepanation at Burzahom (Kashmir) over 4000 years ago]

While the skull of the child found in Lothal is considered the earliest evidence of this type of surgery, a ~4300 year old skull found in Burzahom (10 km north-east of Srinagar)  in Kashmir Valley is definite proof of trepanation. In this particular case, the victim had suffered a blow from a strong wooden stick. She survived the blow as well as the trepanation process.

(Thanks Michel Danino, for the links)


  1. The Chicago medical recorder, Volume 35 By Chicago Medical Society
  2. God-apes and fossil men: paleoanthropology of South Asia By Kenneth A. R. Kennedy
  3. First evidence of brain surgery in Bronze Age Harappa, Current Science, Vol 100, No 11, 10 June 2011
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Preserving Vedic Chanting

(Photo via Ujjwol Lamichhane)

If you have played the party game called “Pass the Secret”, you will know that by the time the message reaches back to you, it would have been distorted beyond recognition.  But for many millennia, the Vedic hymns were memorized and handed down by word of mouth and the contents were preserved intact. The actual wording, intonation and pronounciation had to be perfect and for this the Vedic seers created a system to prevent alteration.

At Huffington Post, Suhag Shukla explains this system

To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.

The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,”the sky is blue” (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, “the/sky/is/blue” (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of “the sky/sky is/is blue” (ab/bc/cd). Jatapata, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of “the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue” (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, “the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue” (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbcd).[Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting]

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Revolutionary Ideas from Göbekli Tepe

(via Wikipedia)

National Geographic has an article (HT Vipul) on Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey where people constructed a huge temple complex much before the invention of agriculture. This site is now prompting historians to rethink the theories on the origins of complex societies. How were foragers, who usually follow the resources like the Nanook, able to stay at one place and move 16 ton stones without wheels or animals? Why did they even bother constructing such a massive structure? Did pilgrimage pre-date the Neolithic revolution?

Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. “I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?” Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. “In 10 or 15 years,” Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”[Göbekli Tepe]

There is a new explanation for the origin of agriculture

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world. The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, “If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area.” Agriculture followed.[Göbekli Tepe]

and it is connected to religion

Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.

Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height. Today the closest known wild ancestors of modern einkorn wheat are found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. In other words, the turn to agriculture celebrated by V. Gordon Childe may have been the result of a need that runs deep in the human psyche, a hunger that still moves people today to travel the globe in search of awe-inspiring sights.[Göbekli Tepe]

See Also: Photos from Göbekli Tepe | Video of a clay model

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Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

(via IMDB)

In Southern France, the Ardèche River flows through a spectacular landscape. Surrounding the river are white limestone cliffs, covered with vegetation, rising up over hundreds of feet. Over the river runs the Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, a natural arc like the one at Arches National Park. The cliffs on either side of the river are perfect places for hiking and that is what Jean-Marie Chauvet and his two friends, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire were doing in December, 1994 when they chanced on a narrow entrance within the cliffs.

When you enter through this obscure shaft which was hidden for twenty millenia, you reach a dark cave with high ceiling where there is not much to see. If you have seen any Ramsay Brothers or Ram Gopal Varma movie, this is the point where you scream and run as fast as possible. Fortunately Chauvet and his friends explored the caves and as they went through the network of chambers they saw not just animal bones or stalactites, but undulating cave walls painted with spectacular animal images. And they were 30,000 years old.

Some of us may enter Mt. Athos, but we will never enter the Chauvet Cave. The cave is closed to public. But then if the French culture minister is a big fan of your movies you may get the once in a life time opportunity to film inside the cave. This is how the Bavarian film maker Werner Herzog (Aguirre) got permission to make this 3D documentary. But even then there were too many restrictions. The crew had to minimal (3 people). They had to use only hand held cold lights and always stay on the narrow walkway. They would be allowed inside only for a few hours every day. Despite such restrictions, the result is a spectacular film.

Since the cave was naturally sealed by a landslide for more than 20,000 years, it is like walking into a time capsule. The walls are filled with drawings of horses, bisons, lions, bears and mammoths. In one depiction, there are a bunch of animals running and to give the impression of running, the artist chose to depict the animal with multiple legs, similar to how you do in modern cartoons. You can call them the precursor to animation. Drawn during the period when Neanderthal man roamed alongside humans and Europe was covered with glaciers, the images are lifelike. They seem to be telling various stories: of fighting and mating and of hunting and movement.

The sequencing takes us in through that cliff-face door, away from sunlit faces and landscapes and down the torchlit shaft leading to the cave’s long chambers. These stretch back some eight hundred feet. The cave’s miracles of geology—the extravagance of its glittering stalagmites and calcite curtains—surpass those of the Pont d’Arc outside. But the chambers also have undulating walls, and it was on these that the ancient artists chiefly worked. We are given a foretaste of their images: we exit; we return to this item, to that; we leave again. “It is a relief to go outside,” Herzog explains: inside the caves we get to feeling “as if we were disturbing,” as if our distant ancestors’ eyes were still upon us. But finally we surrender to the flow of their art, immersed at length in the interplay of torchlight, rippling cave flanks, scorings, charcoalings and red ochre.[Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

But there are no human depictions.

One thing, though: There’s a partial depiction of a female, the lower part of a female body, somewhat embraced by a bison. It’s very strange that this motif reappears 30,000 years later in some etchings of Picasso—the Minotaur and the female.But why no human beings? You see depictions of human beings 20,000 years later, 18,000 years later, at the beginning of Neolithic times. By the end of Paleolithic—during the Magdalenian epoch of Paleolithic culture—that’s where you start seeing human depictions.[Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

The documentary also reveals the amount of care taken by the French to protect the caves. This has not been developed into a tourist site because the visitors’ breath could bring mold on the paintings like what happened in Lascaux. Even the scientists stay on the narrow metal path so as not to plant their foot prints next to the 20,000 year print of an extinct cave bear. For tourists, they are planning a replica site nearby.

(via Wikipedia)

The other impressive thing is the research that has been done in these caves. Every inch has been laser scanned and specialists have looked at every artifact. Near the opening there is a wall with hundreds of hand prints and they belonged to a man who had crooked fingers. Deep in the caves, researchers found another painting which was done by a man who too had crooked fingers. The Chavuet painters used torches and some of them rubbed those flames against the cave walls leaving 28,000 year old charcoal fragments. A surreal moment is when Herzog tells us about two sets of foot prints: one belongs to a bear and the other to a child. Did the bear eat the child, or were they friends or were the foot prints made thousands of years apart? Again, we don’t know.

What makes this a non-boring documentary is Herzog’s commentary. His imagination is quite wild. Standing in the silence, looking at the art, he says one can hear one’s own heartbeat and the sound track switches appropriately. The cave paintings remind him of Fred Astaire’s dancing with the shadows and we get a visual from Swing Time. Then he gets the most wonderful characters to explain the past: a circus employee turned archaeologist, a scientist who walks in reindeer skin, a perfume maker who sniffs for smells in caves. These are very unique Herzog touches.

This is probably the only documentary I have seen in a theater and it was worth it.

Furthur Reading:

  1. What does the world’s oldest art say about us? The New Yorker article that inspired Herzog.
  2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), NYTimes Review
  3. Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  4. Herzog on Fresh Air
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